Burson-Marsteller: PRWeek Global Agency Business Report 2016

Well respected for its crisis management guidance, the WPP firm aims to rebound from a flat year with a stronger integrated offering.

Donald Baer, global CEO and chairman, Burson-Marsteller
Donald Baer, global CEO and chairman, Burson-Marsteller

Principal: Donald Baer, global CEO and chairman; Michael Law, US CEO; Jeremy Galbraith, CEO, EMEA; Margaret Key, CEO, Asia-Pacific
Ownership: WPP (part of Young & Rubicam Group)
Subsidiaries: BWR, Direct Impact, North of Nine Communications, Palisades Media Ventures, Penn Schoen Berland, and Prime Policy Group
Offices: Global, 73; US 14; UK, 2; APAC 18 wholly owned, partner 10
Revenue: Global $400m to $450m; US $200m to $250m; UK £13.7m (estimate); APAC $55m (estimate)
Headcount: Global about 2,500; US about 900; UK about 95; APAC more than 700


After a difficult year of scrambling to recover from the effects of losing a combined $20 million in billings in 2014 from the loss of two major tech accounts, Burson-Marsteller spent 2015 getting back on an even keel.

U.S. revenue declined slightly owing to the continuing aftereffects of the losses of Hewlett-Packard and SAP, split 50/50 around the world on HP and more concentrated in the U.S. on SAP. Overall global revenue was flat; profits did expand in 2015.

"Losing HP and SAP last year was a tough hit," says CEO and worldwide chair Don Baer. "It could have been a disaster, but [global technology practice chair] Rowan Benecke and his team turned it around."

Significant new-business wins for Burson in 2015 included leading a multimillion-dollar deal with Oracle as part of a WPP Team Oracle setup. Burson displaced sister firm Hill+Knowlton subsidiary Blanc & Otus, which was the incumbent on the account.

Other tech highlights included winning Epson, radio frequency device company Zebra Technologies, and virtual reality operator NextVR.

"We made a lot of progress and we’re continuing on that track in a very aggressive way," Baer says. "There are two very big categories the marketplace is demanding: world-class strategic counsel and cutting-edge integrated comms capabilities."

Burson is media AOR in the U.S. for Huawei and continues its corporate work in Shenzhen, China. Other U.S. account wins in 2015 included Pitney Bowes, New York Presbyterian Hospital, the New York City Department of ?Transportation, and Simon Malls. McDonald’s and Dior came on in Latin America. In March 2016 the agency took on U.S. AOR duties for Chipotle after a competitive pitch. The restaurant chain split with previous AOR Edelman last fall owing to conflict-of-interest concerns.

In 2015, Burson also worked to counter the aftermath of a Listeria outbreak at ice-cream company Blue Bell Creameries. It won Crisis or Issues Management Campaign of the Year at the PRWeek Awards for its work with Texas Health Resources after the first case of Ebola in the U.S. was misdiagnosed at a hospital in Dallas.

"We have a unique ability to provide judgment, insight, and direction for clients that are either facing critical situations in a crisis or are trying to project reputation in an assertive way," Baer says.

The firm also had a big year working with sports federations and national governments looking to enhance their reputations, counseling the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, where the firm was brought on by the worldwide soccer body’s reform committee, led by François Carrard with teams in London and Washington, DC.

Burson worked with Turkey on its reputation around the world and with Egypt after a Russian plane was blown up in its airspace. "We handled initial crisis work and built a strong relationship as they tried to improve their world reputation," Baer explains.

In integrated communications, Burson continues to be an integral part of holding company WPP’s Team Ford operation, illustrating group CEO Martin Sorrell’s push for horizontality across the group. The agency now looks to play a bigger role in other large group clients such as Colgate.

"The trick for us is to maintain growth in both [strategic counsel and integrated communications], keep them from being isolated from one another, and make sure they’re integrated," Baer adds.

WPP’s overall organic growth in 2015 at its PR and public affairs operations was 6% and group CEO Sorrell noted Burson-Marsteller and Hill+Knowlton were "less buoyant" than sister firms. Burson said goodbye to client TGI Fridays during the year.

‘It’s a people business’
Burson parted company with Penn Schoen Berland CEO Jay Leveton, who left for former Burson CEO Mark Penn’s new venture The Stagwell Group; Southwest market leader Matt Burns joined the firm’s client UnitedHealthcare. Overall global staff turnover in the year was about 30%.

In October Burson welcomed Chris Foster back from a short stay at Booz Allen Hamilton for a third stint, this time as worldwide EVP specializing in senior client counsel. Another rebound was Jorge Ortega, who moved over in May from Newlink to become EVP and MD of Burson-Marsteller Miami.

Other new sign-ups in 2015 included senior strategist Heidi Sinclair in June; Jane Madden as MD of the firm’s U.S. corporate and financial practice and head of U.S. CSR; Kevin Bell, global public affairs practice chair, based in London; Christine Heenan, working as a senior adviser and member of Burson’s U.S. creative council; and, at the regional level, Ann Davison, public affairs and crisis strategy chair based in DC.

"It’s a people business," notes Baer. "At the most important level, it’s about talent, especially when it comes to strategic counsel."

The agency launched a specialty team to provide clients with strategic counsel on the political and economic environment in the U.S. and Cuba and linked up with Ridge Global advising on the cybersecurity landscape.

In April 2015, it also launched StudioB, a data-driven, content-creation and distribution offer led by U.S. chief strategy officer Thomas Gensemer. And iconic agency founder Harold Burson celebrated his 95th birthday in February 2016.


Burson-Marsteller has had its best year in the UK "in a decade", according to its UK and EMEA chief, Jeremy Galbraith. 

This is a welcome development following last year’s performance in the UK, which Galbraith then described as "pretty flat".

The agency is also celebrating "good growth" across the Middle East region, while also recognising the more challenging picture for its network across southern Europe. 

Within the Middle East, Egypt is yielding big business for BM, as well as Saudi Arabia and Dubai.

In Europe he credits continued strong growth across the Nordic region to the appointment of Morten Pettersen as chief executive of the region last year.

"We’ve seen phenomenal growth coming out of Norway in the past couple of years," says Galbraith. "We’re major players in Finland, Sweden and Denmark."

He also names the operations in Italy and Spain as the unsung heroes of the European picture, adding they have been working against a backdrop of "dire economies". 

While talking about the economic backdrop, Galbraith alludes to the on-going EU referendum debate, saying: "Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a Eurozone that was growing and encouraging entrepreneurism and all the rest? But unfortunately we’re not."

He points instead to the Middle East and Africa as the engines of growth in the region for the future, with the potential for 30 per cent growth in a year.

The remaining piece of the puzzle, Africa, is also strong, according to Galbraith, following the purchase of Arcay Communications in South Africa, now rebranded as Burson-Marsteller Johannesburg.

BM is known for its crisis comms work and it has been at the heart of advising clients around some of the biggest crises to strike business during 2015, including the Metrojet air crash in Egypt and the Germanwings tragedy in France

"There are not many agencies that could work on those sorts of issues," argues Galbraith. "We are known for crisis and issues and public affairs but we do a huge amount in the area of integrated communications."

In the past year this has included supporting the Norwegian ministry of health to persuade people not to use Snus, a variant of snuff, helping the European Union promote sport and physical activity across the continent and working with the Children’s Rights Forum and Girls 20, an NGO.

He says: "There’s a whole variety of integrated campaigns we’re working on across the region with truly creative campaigns that are not necessarily the Burson that you immediately think of."

The challenges facing the agency include local economies across the region and, as with many agencies, attracting and retaining talent because the nature of the workforce is changing.

He says: "I don’t think the agency pro with 20 years of experience is the employee of the future. The battle for talent is the biggest challenge whether you are a global or a local agency."

Going through the gains and losses of major accounts in the past year, Galbraith says nothing major was lost, a good thing given that the end of 2014 saw the losses of HP and SAP.

Big wins include working with Egypt and "very significant" extra work for GSK and Bayer and working in Kazakhstan to promote Expo 2017 Astana.

In healthcare, there have been wins with AstraZeneca Pfizer and Novartis, while in consumer there have been wins with Lavazza coffee across multiple markets and the Jamaican Tourism Board in the UK. BM has also extended its global relationship with Fed Ex into the region and won Mobily, a telecoms firm, in Saudi.

Galbraith notes two trends emerging. The first is senior counsel in helping to match comms strategy with the business strategy, while the second is the drive towards integrated comms.

"That’s the future. We really need to think of ourselves as organisations that provide content to our clients as well as senior strategic advice," he says. 

In order to meet this need, Galbraith says there is a drive to hire senior strategic advisers and to invest in people with social media and digital skills, which are now the "prerequisite" to work with any PR firm.

He also wants to increase production studio facilities in order to deliver film and animation content, as well as analytics to measure the impact of campaigns.

Galbraith agrees that hiring top-flight broadcast professionals is another emerging trend within the industry.

He says: "A lot of people came into our profession because they love writing. Writing is important but in today’s world, an image or a Vine grabs so much more attention than a three-page essay."

Looking ahead, Galbraith says there are a handful of acquisitions BM wants to make: "One is to add new geography, the second is in the social media space and the third is to add another speciality to our business."


A lot can change in a year and that’s certainly true of the PR industry. In January 2015, Burson-Marsteller named Terri-Helen Gaynor as Asia-Pacific CEO, following a lengthy search to fill a position that had remained vacant for two years.

Less than six months into the role, Gaynor resigned, leading to Margaret Key’s promotion to Asia-Pacific CEO. At the same time, Prema Sagar, principal and founder of Genesis Burson-Marsteller (GBM), took on the additional role of regional vice chair.

Key, who was previously COO for Asia-Pacific at the agency, has had a busy nine months. "Time has gone by quickly since I took over in June – there’s obviously been a period of transition but it was much smoother than I thought it was going to be," she says.

Key has wasted little time in bolstering the agency’s client roster across Asia, with account wins in the last year including Singapore Tourism Board, BASF and Asia Miles, as well as Cunard in China (its sister business, Princess Cruises, is an existing BM client).

A common denominator across many of its campaigns is technology – wearable and wireless as well as digital platforms. "It influences how we do business and it’s certainly changing the way our clients do business, all at an incredibly rapid pace," says Key.

She says the Asia-Pacific region achieved single-digit growth in the last year, with China the best-performing market in terms of revenue. Growth, she adds, was slowed by the completion of several projects as well as fallout from the significant losses of the HP and SAP accounts in 2014.

Two of the agency’s top clients, Bayer and Bank of America, expanded with projects across different markets in Asia.

In India, with its GBM operation, the agency built on its GBM Live! Newsroom offering launched in 2014, which is designed to curate news across all media channels and repackage this for clients. In 2015, GBM launched two centres of expertise – GBM Issues & Crisis Group and GBM Client Studio.

The former offers a complete range of crisis readiness, response and recovery capabilities 365 days a year, ensuring that clients have the structures, tools and resources in place to prevent or handle crises. The GBM Client Studio is aimed at training corporate leaders and offers coaching on specific communication needs.

"There is a centre of creative excellence emerging from India and we have some of the best crisis experts in the region," says Key. "We are focusing on strategic consulting and integrated comms – going beyond the crisis issue and looking at social media and how this is being amplified. The hub is in India but its expertise is being replicated all over Asia."

The agency also formed an alliance in April with WhiteKettle Consulting, an Indian CSR consulting firm. Headquartered in Mumbai, WhiteKettle is partnering with GBM to address clients’ CSR requirements, where demand is growing. Key says she is also looking to capitalise on more links between India and China.

In February 2016, the agency launched StepUp China, a venture with Chinese PR agency Flyfinger, modelled on the original StepUp launched in India the previous year. Headquartered in Beijing, it aims to target growing local startups that do not yet have the comms capabilities to boost their brand presence.

"Our two biggest markets in the region [China and India] are working together to build capabilities in best case scenario planning," says Key, who adds that growth in these markets must be balanced by that in other parts like North Asia, specifically Korea and Japan, as well as Southeast Asia, led by Singapore as a hub.

The evolution of social and digital marketing increasingly means undertaking initiatives to seek and engage with new talent outside of the traditional PR realm, including creatives and planners.

In February, Barry Wong joined as managing director of creative and innovation, having previously worked at Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann Worldgroup.  He is based in Hong Kong alongside Key, and this hiring practice is a model she is keen to push across other markets.

"This is a new and quite aggressive move for us – we will be looking to appoint a creative head for other offices in the region. This is Barry’s first time in PR and he will be transforming what we do on a digital front, with a focus on digital, creative, social and advertising, creating a centre of excellence based in Hong Kong."

Other key hires in the last year include Ruby Fu, who previously worked at BM as managing director in Taiwan and who was most recently head of corporate affairs for Hong Kong and China at Standard Chartered. She joined the agency as China CEO in January this year and will play a key role in growing the agency’s China practice.

Retaining high quality talent is one of Key’s biggest challenges. She sees the concept of integration not only extending across channels and services, but also relating to teams, whereby employees at both the highest and lowest level will be consulting clients. It’s what she terms "an integrated, holistic approach to client management".

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